Spotting typos: why it's so hard

17 May 2019

When Donald Trump welcomes the Boston Red Socks team, not the Red Sox, or someone spots a typo on the Australian $50 note, we are reminded of the potential backlash when mistakes slip through.

You know the scenario. You’ve checked your report a dozen times, each time finding several ‘new’ typos. They seem to come out of the woodwork. If you see a mistake that you’re sure you fixed last time, you might even begin to believe aliens are sabotaging your work.

Despite our best efforts, we all make typographical errors. So why is it so hard to spot typos in our own work?

Trap 1. Familiarity with the content. When we read, our brain anticipates words, rather than takes note of every letter, unless we stumble on a word that is unfamiliar to us. Through the drafting and editing process we become so familiar with what we have written, spotting errors in our own work becomes even more challenging.

Trap 2. Focusing on the big picture. During the writing and editing process your brain will be focusing on the more complex tasks of combining sentences into ideas and making your meaning clear. To proofread effectively, you need to focus on the detail.  

Trap 3. Not taking enough time. Proofreading quickly is setting yourself up for failure. Accurate proofreading requires intense concentration and carefully checking every mark on the page. If you rush, or your mind wanders because you’re tired, hungry or need to catch a train, you will miss errors that you might have picked up if you had been feeling alert and less pressured.

Trap 4. Lack of training in proofreading skills. Not everyone is good at proofreading. You need to have a keen eye for detail as well as an excellent knowledge of grammar and usage. A professional proofreader is not only trained and experienced, but will be looking at the document with completely fresh eyes.

Trap 5. Over-reliance on spell and grammar checkers. These software programs are wonderful tools and do make proofreading more efficient, but they don’t pick up all errors. For example, a spell checker will see ‘sox’ as a spelling error and ask you to change it to ‘socks’. At the other extreme, you may forget to do a final spell check just before you submit your document. Even if you previously did a spell check, those last three or four corrections you made may have introduced another error.

To make a typo is to be human. At some point in your working life, you are likely to have an embarrassing typo experience. Accuracy is also a quality control issue. One major embarrassing typo, or the accumulation of many minor errors, may affect your brand or make your clients, boss or colleagues lose confidence in your ability to do your job effectively. If you work in an industry where accuracy is critical, such as law, medicine or engineering, the reader could infer from your typographical errors that you make mistakes in other aspects of your work.

For professional, accurate proofreading contact Concise Writing Consultancy today on 02 9238 6638.

For proofreading tips see our blog Three quick tricks for reducing typos  

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